Unexpected Economics

Course No. 5657
Professor Timothy Taylor, M.Econ.
Macalester College
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Course No. 5657
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Course Overview

Why are we choosing to have fewer children, even as we put more time into raising each one? Why are we so often willing to follow the herd and the opinions of strangers when making important decisions, even when those decisions are deeply personal? Why do people bother to vote in elections even when they believe their vote can't possibly influence the outcome?

Most surprising: Why are questions like these increasingly attracting the attention of economists?

Economics is a field most people think of as having to do with international trade balances, gross national products, unemployment projections, and other issues involving our own finances, our country's, or the world's. In recent decades, though, economists have been turning their lenses on issues well outside these traditional boundaries, focusing on one "unexpected" subject after another. They're asking how we choose our spouses, for example, or why we select particular places to worship, or what goes into our decision to designate ourselves as organ donors on our driver's licenses. Indeed, the latest thinking to come from the field of economics can offer us a fresh perspective on every area of life in which the interactions of personal choice, motivation, and perceived outcome—the very heart of economics—play essential roles.

The 24 fascinating lectures of Unexpected Economics will help you grasp as never before the ways in which these mechanisms for making choices operate even in areas in which you may never have considered the forces of economics to be at work. Delivered by acclaimed economist and popular Great Courses Professor Timothy Taylor—managing editor of the Journal of Economic Perspectives, the most widely distributed journal of academic economics in the world—Unexpected Economics puts to rest the oft-quoted misconception of economics as "the dismal science." Instead, you'll take part in a wide-ranging and enjoyable investigation of how economic thinking—whether applied personally, nationally, or globally—relates to, and sheds fresh light on, just about everything.

Using findings from recent Nobel Prize winners and rapidly evolving leading-edge fields like behavioral economics, Professor Taylor looks at subjects ranging from discrimination and natural disasters to charity and risk-taking, and even whether terrorism can be considered a "career choice." As you roam with him across this fascinating landscape, you'll discover unique vantage points from which to survey and understand these exciting and vital territories being explored every day by economists. And you'll gain a deeper understanding of the role of choice in your own life, whether choices you've made for yourself, or those made for you by leaders you've entrusted with that authority.

Broaden Your Net of Choices

It's no accident that economists' recent and growing attention to an increasingly broader range of topics has produced not only a variety of international honors and recognition within the discipline but also popular best-selling books. And there's no arguing with how the resulting insights and findings have radically changed our thinking about how and why decisions—whether personal, national, or global—are made. Or how they can give anyone in a position to make or evaluate those decisions a powerful tool for "broadening the net" of choices and determining the best course of action.

It's the holiday season and you're gift shopping. How useful might it be to really understand why a particular person is on your list, and what motivations for giving might truly be in play as you make your selection?

A government official is charged with addressing the tremendous shortage of available kidneys for those desperately needing a transplant. What factors go into designing a policy that will not only satisfy the needs of new donors, but also those of the political players whose approval is needed?

Every four years, the Olympic Games present a global stage for athletic competition. But they are also just as much a cooperative endeavor. What factors go into striking the right balance needed to ensure success? And what lessons do the Games hold in enhancing our understanding of that same competitive-cooperative balance in business and work life?

A Fascinating Look at the Hidden Role of Economics

Teaching in a friendly style, Professor Taylor offers numerous examples of the hidden role of economics—with its constant dance of incentives and tradeoffs—in every aspect of life, including these:

  • A provocative look at obesity in America, including the counterintuitive role of income, the impact of five key food preparation and preservation technologies, and some surprising revelations about who really bears the costs obesity imposes on society
  • The role of "information cascades" in forming public opinion and influencing people to fall in with the herd—even when the information is absolutely wrong—and how such a cascade meant decades of medically incorrect treatment for stomach ulcers
  • How changing mores have made once-deplored markets and economic transactions acceptable, from surrogate pregnancy to the purchase of life insurance, a practice once believed by some to be elevating oneself above God
  • The changing economic and social forces that have altered the balance of incentives for men and women when it comes to marrying versus remaining single, how many children to have, and whether to seek a divorce

Economic Elements Worth Noticing

A masterful economist with a powerful ability to explain the particulars of economics in commonsense language, Professor Taylor is the consummate guide for this fresh perspective on the relationship between economics and your world. With the same engaging style that has earned him teaching awards, he illustrates one of the main takeaways from Unexpected Economics: That in a world in which each of us is constantly seeking to balance our wants and needs, the key elements of the economist's worldview are always with us—and always worth noticing.

Drawing on everything from psychology, history, and political science to philosophy, statistics, and game theory, these lectures are an enjoyable and rewarding way for you to learn how economics is rooted in seeking to understand not just trade and finances but the essence of how and why human beings make actual decisions.

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24 lectures
 |  Average 30 minutes each
  • 1
    The World of Choices
    In this introductory lecture, encounter a definition of economics far broader than the one understood by most people. Also, learn that economics is about the choices you make in every aspect of life, their consequences, and the degree to which the realm of choice itself is larger than you would think. x
  • 2
    A Market for Pregnancy
    History demonstrates that most people are creatures of their own time in terms of what they will accept as appropriate economic transactions. Focus on three once-banned examples now seen as partly or completely ordinary: interest payments, life insurance, and the so-called "baby market." x
  • 3
    Selling a Kidney
    The discussion of forbidden transactions continues with a provocative look at the controversy over the buying and selling of human organs like kidneys or livers. No matter where you stand on the issue, this consideration of benefits and costs offers a fresh perspective from which to consider your views of medicine and longevity. x
  • 4
    Traffic Congestion—Costs, Pricing, and You
    Can economic analysis do anything about traffic? This free-wheeling examination of the choices that produce both the problem and solution reveals an example of the "tragedy of the commons" and looks at how the city of London addressed the issue with a strategy of "congestion pricing." x
  • 5
    Two-Way Ties between Religion and Economics
    Although links between religion and economics may seem counterintuitive to many, the possibility has interested economists ever since the work of Adam Smith. This lecture explores how several different aspects of religion may in fact contribute to the underpinnings of the real-world economy. x
  • 6
    Prediction Markets—Windows on the Future
    Can the likelihood of a future event be predicted? If so, how? Plunge into the world of prediction markets, where people place bets on what will happen, and get some surprising answers—in areas that include elections, Oscar winners, and the performance of new products. x
  • 7
    Pathways for Crime and Crime Fighting
    Step beyond the traditional nature-versus-nurture argument about the causes of crime to examine the problem from an economic perspective. Grasp how incentives and tradeoffs affect the decisions of both criminals and law enforcement and how policymakers might better take them into account. x
  • 8
    Terrorism as an Occupational Choice
    Is there a causal relationship between poverty and terrorism, or a pathway to terrorism originating in a lack of education? Discover some surprising answers as you turn your attention to the choices and incentives economists find when examining how terrorism and its practitioners find each other. x
  • 9
    Marriage as a Search Market
    By looking at the many factors that go into marriage—from the "market" where people find their spouses to the forces that influence their choices about remaining together or splitting apart—you'll gain fresh insight into why marriage patterns have shifted so dramatically. x
  • 10
    Procreation and Parenthood
    Beginning with the work of Thomas Malthus, explore the many ways in which our child-bearing patterns have changed, including a current theory that actually sees children as a kind of luxury good, where an increase in income translates into an even higher investment in one's children. x
  • 11
    Small Choices and Racial Discrimination
    Take a close look at how discrimination against African Americans manifests itself in various markets. Learn about the different analytical perspectives set forth by economists like Becker, Schelling, and Arrow; the impact of the Civil Rights Act of 1964; and three different approaches to achieving equality. x
  • 12
    Cooperation and the Prisoner's Dilemma
    A discussion of the classic Prisoner's Dilemma and its application to the market economy leads to a surprising conclusion: Competition and cooperation are not opposites. Instead, they are interlocking, with market competition the ultimate example of socially cooperative behavior. x
  • 13
    Fairness and the Ultimatum Game
    Turn your focus to the world of "laboratory economics," where game exercises like the "ultimatum game," "dictator," "punishment," "trust," "gift exchange," and others help cast fresh light on key aspects of economic behavior. Learn how perceived fairness and other motivating factors can affect real-life markets. x
  • 14
    Myopic Preferences and Behavioral Economics
    Myopia can refer to more than eyesight. Grasp the impact of setting aside the long-term view in favor of the shorter one, a pattern whose consequences can be seen not only in personal finance, but in health care, time management, and many other aspects of behavior. x
  • 15
    Altruism, Charity, and Gifts
    Is charity always altruistic, or is giving really motivated by disguised self-interest? Examine the many possible motivations for charity, societal steps to support it, and the imbalances that occur when a recipient's valuation of a gift is markedly different from that of the giver. x
  • 16
    Loss Aversion and Reference Point Bias
    How a choice is framed significantly affects which alternative is chosen, even when either will produce identical results. Grasp why this is so through concepts like loss aversion and reference dependence, and see how public "nudge" policies might be used to influence those choices. x
  • 17
    Risk and Uncertainty
    An eye-opening exploration of how economists see risk introduces behavioral descriptions like risk-neutral, risk-seeking, and risk-averse, along with the most useful way to realistically evaluate probabilities and make decisions. Learn how this knowledge factors into public policy subjects like energy and finance. x
  • 18
    Human Herds and Information Cascades
    Most of us understandably "run with the herd" when making decisions outside our personal expertise. Although this often leads to correct choices, it can also draw us astray. Learn the dangers of "information cascades" and how to avoid joining herds headed in disastrous directions. x
  • 19
    Addiction and Choice
    In a provocative examination of a controversial subject, learn how some economists have analyzed drug addiction as a chosen behavior—and therefore subject to analysis of costs, benefits, and incentives, much like any other personal choice. x
  • 20
    Obesity—Who Bears the Costs?
    American men and women have both gained an average of more than 20 pounds since the early 1960s. Address the reasons for this increase, the role played by economic factors, and the implications for public policy, including who really pays the costs obesity imposes. x
  • 21
    The Economics of Natural Disasters
    The damage natural disasters do to people and property is not just a matter of fate. Explore how the answers to economic questions about socially appropriate investments in advance planning and preparation for rapid response can influence the impact of a natural disaster. x
  • 22
    Sports Lessons—Pay, Performance, Tournaments
    Although sports account for a far less significant piece of the economy than most people assume, it does provide economists with especially clear examples with much broader applicability. Grasp what sports can teach us about issues like pay and promotion, valuing talent, and providing incentives for top performance. x
  • 23
    Voting, Money, and Politics
    What happens when voting—its costs, incentives, even its very rationality—is subjected to the scrutiny of economists? Understand the real impacts on this defining principle of democracy from factors like voter ignorance, money, special interests, and turnout. x
  • 24
    The Pursuit of Happiness
    If happiness is indeed the ultimate incentive for the choices we make, is there any way to measure it? This concluding lecture examines several ways in which economists have sought to define and measure this elusive goal and the ways in which the results might influence our choices. x

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  • 24 lectures on 4 DVDs
  • 168-page printed course guidebook
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  • 168-page printed course guidebook
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  • Suggested readings
  • Questions to consider

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Your professor

Timothy Taylor

About Your Professor

Timothy Taylor, M.Econ.
Macalester College
Professor Timothy Taylor is Managing Editor of the prominent Journal of Economic Perspectives, published by the American Economic Association. He earned his Master's degree in Economics from Stanford University. Professor Taylor has won student-voted teaching awards for his Introductory Economics classes at Stanford University. At the University of Minnesota, he was named a Distinguished Lecturer by the Department of...
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Reviews

Unexpected Economics is rated 4.3 out of 5 by 54.
Rated 2 out of 5 by from great prof, feeble material First, Dr. Taylor is just flat out terrific. Great delivery, fun to listen to, engaging, beyond criticism. Unfortunately, i found the material to be dubious and somewhat unimpressive. I have 3 degrees including one in religion, and one in Zoology, so I was especially intersted in stuff like the marriage and parenting sections, religion and economics, and racism. I found the material just didn't hold up to scrutiny. I thought the approach really wasn't as accurate as I would have liked it to be. I've read Freakonomics and Outliers and the same sort of stuff was in them, and I had the same issues. Fun premises, thought provoking, but more often than not I thought they were selectively using or overlooking other facts. These are immensely broad areas and I found that the material in this series didn't impress me with scholarly rigor. No slam on Prof. Taylor; i would love to sit in on a class, but after the 11th lecture I just realized i wasn't getting much out of this and returned it.
Date published: 2012-02-07
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Even better than the book "Freakonomics" This course was fun, interesting, and wonderfully detailed. Prof Taylor is very engaging. I bought this course because I so enjoyed the insights of the books "Freakonomics" and "Superfreakonomics." Prof Taylor's lectures lived up to and surpassed my expectations.
Date published: 2012-02-01
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Fun Audio CD. This course discusses a series of social topics from the view of an economist. Not all of the topics, such as sports, terrorism, and obesity, are what one would initially consider economic issues, but Dr. Taylor addresses them based on his profession. (In that sense, it is like Freakonomics.) He analyzes these topics based on the fundamental economic principle of weighing marginal gain against marginal loss. Dr. Taylor is always engaging and his presentations are always well-organized. I was surprised by the amount of overlap with Dr. Whaples’ Modern Economic Issues, including lectures such as marriage, traffic congestion, organ donation, the prisoner’s dilemma, and marriage. I thought I was listening to a repeat of some of the lectures and I was surprised to learn that the lectures were by different people. I recommend the course for anybody interested in analysis of decision-making.
Date published: 2012-01-29
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Thought Provoking! Prof. Taylor does a great job in this course of identifying a variety of personal and societal issues that can be better understood through economic analysis. The result is a thought provoking series of lectures that will cause you to think about old issues in new ways. I agree that the course is a good complement to Taylor's Economics TTC course or the TTC Modern Economic Issues course. There is also some limited (one lecture) overlap with the Games People Play TTC course. I viewed the DVD version but I think this course would work just fine in the audio format. All in all, this course is very well done and well worth the investment in time and money.
Date published: 2012-01-09
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Outstanding This is an excellent companion to Prof. Taylor's Economics course or (more similar to this course) Modern Economics Issues. Prof. Taylor is an enthusiastic and informative lecturer. His lectures show us how economic thinking can be applied to a myriad of topics where we might not initially think to apply it (choosing a marriage partner). The intellectual rigor of this course should improve anyone's ability to think like an economist, and make us all better consumers, better producers and better citizens. While accomplishing all this heavy work, the lectures are simultaneously light and quite enjoyable to listen to. Prof. Taylor is an entertaining professor, which helps cement the lessons he's converying. My highest recommendation.
Date published: 2011-12-20
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Intriguing (with some "issues") I enjoyed the diversity and breadth of this courses: applying comtemporary economic theory to allsorts of "unexpected" topics, from road traffic to racial discrimination to sports to marriage choice. It is truly fascinating. The lecturer is energetic, enthusuiast and articulate. However, I also have a serious criticism, and that is the way that economists, including the professor, play loose with concepts to prove an"economic" arugument. For example, the class on "addictions and choice" argues that "perhaps" additicion is a choice. Then he cites unrelated studies, such as one time talking about everyday alcohol users, then shifting to severe alcoholics; he lumps severe alcoholics, binge drinkers, young experimenters, cigarette smokers, as "all the same" when they are vastly difference. He posits that addicts make "long term rational choices" when in reality it is likelyt o be an impulsive move influenced by "denial" or ignoring long term implications. The result is that unrelated facts are used to develop a theory of "rational choice." Research is usually "artifically" based on game theory, not real world behavior. The lecturer even admits these ideas are controvesial. They aregenerally abstarct and statistically based, not "real." This is similar in the lecture on racial discrimination, terrorism, and others.Thus, while very interesting, many arguments fall apart on their own "rationality", trying to apply statistics and theories in places that are not, in fact, "true." I still would recommend this course to "enjoy", or to get you to think (and even disagree) but certainly not to buy whole these arbitrary arguments.
Date published: 2011-12-16
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Unexpected Value This is probably the most undervalued course I've taken through the series. Watching the first few lectures I was afraid I'd made a mistake. By the time I finished the last section I found myself rewatching lectures that I found to be entertaining and informative. This is another example of how economists use rational thinking when looking at the world.
Date published: 2011-12-14
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Unexpected Economics, Expected Excelleance You'd be amazed, as I was, by how Economists can reduce just about any subject to dollars and sense. Cogent arguments can be made for selling a kidney, who pays for obesity and searching for a spouse, to name just a few. I was especially interested in the chapter on the economics of Terrorism, which it appears, will be with us for many years. Professor Taylor gives a series of fascinating, animated lectures that is sure to please most of us.
Date published: 2011-11-15
Rated 4 out of 5 by from broad and interesting topics covers a different set of materials from Prof. Taylor's other lecture sets, less in depth as the others such as <Economics>, but this set includes some very useful and and up to date ideas. overall another great lecture set from a top notch lecturer presented with excellent clarity. Some ideas such as organ market may be controversial but they are thought provoking.
Date published: 2011-11-12
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